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Will Enjoying ‘Cosmos’ Depend On If You Liked Science In School?


Tonight's TV line-up has science enthusiasts quite excited. Of course I'm talking about Cosmos as presented by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, produced by Seth MacFarlane (of Family Guy fame) and written by Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan's widow and co-creator of the original series.

There has been a lot of talk about whether this program will get the general public engaged with science once again (Can Cosmos get People Talking About Science Again?) and more importantly if this will be a "win" for science communication in general.

Seth MacFarlane is expecting that his inspirational host, incredible visuals, and sweeping musical scores will be enough to get people interested in science again, and that even those not interested in science will watch. Hollywood, Madison Avenue and any moviegoer knows that certain visual and sound elements can make a tremendous psychological impact. But is this enough for science? Will viewers leave having learned something? At the very least, will they look favorably upon science?

Have you noticed there are all sorts of ways to present science and that no single way can claim to be effective for every audience member? This is because each of us come to TV programs believing that this mode of transmitting science information is a valid way to learn science OR it is not. We also come to a video or TV program with our own beliefs about science based on our school experience, positive or negative.

We can plot these two factors into a grid taking account our favorable/unfavorable view of TV as a source of learning and our like/dislike of science based on our early schooling experience and determine what elements are essential in a program depending on your perspective.

These are not variables chosen at random. I have simplified the findings from a French study that looked at what factors were important to viewers back in 1996. Granted, many things have changed in TV and video since then, most notably informative videos on the internet, and an increased knowledge of how to capture an audience with technology (and psychology), but if nothing else, this study defines what those of us in science communication already know:

That means that there is no single, ideal way of presenting science. Different strategies must be adopted for different publics. For some people, the mediation of a television host or reporter is essential, protecting them from an unfamiliar world. For others it is unacceptable. A clearly defined didactic situation where the knowledge differential between the viewer and the scientist or the TV host is underscored can be happily accepted by one category but rejected by another. Behind these differing reactions to form, we can see different relations to the media, different expectations of science, and even different ideas about what the popularization of science can mean: the transmission of practical, every-day knowledge, or the chance to meet a scientist close-up. All these different expectations and different relations to knowledge must be taken into account to understand the success–or failure–of science on television.”

It will be interesting to see the long term effect on science interest that a series such as this, with high production values and the ability to captivate an audience, in ways completely separate from the subject matter, will be able to accomplish. Will Cosmos change the minds of those who have a negative view of science because of their school experience? It seems Seth MacFarlane believes so. Whether we have a new crop of scientists in 10-15 years from this remains to be seen.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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